After leading Auburn University with 136 tackles in 1997 and being named the SEC Championship game MVP, linebacker Takeo Spikes continued to dominate the field in the NFL. During his 15-year career in the NFL, playing for five different teams with over 200 career starts, Takeo Spikes produced over 1,000 tackles, 29 sacks, 19 interceptions, and was named Team Captain for 13 seasons.
After achieving such greatness in the NFL, including becoming a two-time Pro Bowl selection and two-time All-Pro, what does one of the all-time greatest linebackers do after retiring from the sport? Takeo Spikes continues to inspire greatness.
The college football and NFL analyst, Sirius XM radio host, and motivational speaker has shown that he is a man of many talents, and recently he has revealed his flair for creating art and capturing awe-inspiring stories. Spikes has a passion for photography that started at family functions with his mother, and he used that passion to platform other NFL athletes and what inspired them for greatness.
In Takeo Spikes Presents: Behind the Mask (The Linebacker Edition), the NFL legend sat down with 12 of the NFL’s all-time best linebackers. Not only does Spikes document these rarely told stories, including the great Chuck Bednarik’s final interview before the legend passed in 2015, he presents them with stunning photographs as well.
Never shy to share his thoughts, Takeo Spikes also inspires change on a societal level. The former linebacker wrote a powerful editorial last year regarding the NFL players’ national anthem protest. The article garnered a lot of attention, and it impacted many who didn’t fully understand what the protests represent. Spikes has used the power of the pen to help make a cultural shift, and the power of art to bring people together.
Carter Lee: “I’ve been following your career since you retired from playing football, and I appreciate what you are doing. It’s very inspirational. You often use your celebrity platform to voice your opinion on topics that some may consider taboo or controversial. You wrote an editorial for The Players Tribune titled “Wake Up,” and I loved it. Often people are receptive and want to know what they can do to help the cause, but a lot of times people run the other way and don’t even want to even deal with a taboo topic. So, I’m curious, what was the response like when you released this powerful, and much needed, message on the protests? I’m sure some found it controversial.”
Takeo Spikes: “Yeah, some did. The reaction was 360 and some were 180, like you said, some ran the other way. But I received a lot of phone calls from players and they were like, ‘Is it really like that?’ People are often unaware. They woke up and didn’t realize what was going on. I had three former teammates, Caucasians, tell me, ‘I didn’t know.” One guy said, ‘I had no idea. I don’t have to worry about my son like that. I can send him to the store and I don’t worry about him not coming back. I don’t worry about him being harassed by the police.'”
CL: “That’s great that your message reached people, and that you’re getting the message out there. Let’s shift to your wonderful book. What I like about it is that it’s not only filled with great stories, but the photographs are stunning. How did your interest in photography come about? I read that your mom, kind of, got you involved with it.”
TS: “I’ve always taken snapshots of my career, and really documented things from family functions, get togethers, and family vacations. And the things I got a kick out of from just learning from my mother; she was great at capturing the moment, but that moment was blurry. Oh my God, it was blurry. That’s what really got me hooked. I said, ‘Mom, let me show you how to take a picture.’ And we just kept going back and forth [with the camera]. I went years. I’m talking about eight or ten years, and I looked back at everything I had. And I documented damn near everything I did from a family perspective.”
CL: “You cover a lot of legends in this book. If you could just share some stories on a few of them. I’m a lifelong Redskins fan, so I’m curious what you can share about London Fletcher.”
TS: “It was a great conversation. He doesn’t talk about it much, but he allows me to talk about it. If you read London’s story, he wasn’t supposed to make it. London grew up in a house with his grandmother. His mother was on drugs. His father was on drugs, his entire life. His mother and father both passed away, and he really grew up in the street around his cousins. And the thing that is crazy to me, he has uncles that are the same age as him.
For me, the things that I take from London Fletcher’s story: one, I want to say he’s the best captain I ever played with. One of the best leaders I’ve ever played with. Two, I was amazed of how he could block out all of the noise; he was undrafted, and he didn’t have a shot to play. But he knew he didn’t want to go back living the way he was. There was no way out of the hood. He didn’t complain, he blocked out the noise, and he continued, what we call, he continued to chop wood. And he kept chopping and kept chopping.
And then he was nominated a starter under Dick Vermeil because Dick loved it loved it loved it, how much he loved to hustle. He never got the due respect as Super Bowl champion. But he went to Buffalo and he continued to play. And I remember when he pulled a hamstring. This joker did not come out of the game. He tweaked his ham! And it’s not by accident that after he left Buffalo he went to Washington. And that’s when he really got his due respect. From not just the media, but from all of the guys in the league. Because they knew this guy puts it down all the time. There was no drop-off throughout his career. He played every game. And that’s the reason why he is ‘The Iron Man.'”
CL: “Simply incredible. You also gave ‘Concrete Charlie’ his last interview. The great Chuck Bednarik, and he has a powerful story. What was that like? Being able to meet him, I’m assuming at his home, this WWII vet, and his decades of wisdom. Was that a surreal experience?”
TS: “Oh, so surreal. I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t care about the football part of it. I mean anybody can see numbers and see how great he was. I wanted to know, how could you be an airplane gunner in WWII? You telling me, you see bullets coming at you piercing through your plane and you’re fighting back? And when you get out of your plane you see the bullets that almost hit you. And you got on your knees on that ship and said, ‘Lord, if you ever allow me to go back to the great state of Pennsylvania I know what I’m going to do with my life.’ And when he did, that was the beginning of ‘Concrete Charlie.’
That blew my mind. But it took that for him, because he talked about how bad he was as a kid. How he didn’t want to do certain things, like going to school, or how he would skip-out on school. And how he was naturally bigger than everybody else—he was the bully. But it’s amazing what a few bullets can do to you throughout your life, especially if you don’t get hit by them.”
CL: “That’s amazing. What was the most powerful interview you conducted for Behind the Mask? Which one kind of took you back a bit??
TS: “Mike Singletary, I would probably say. All of the stories are great. And the reason why, I felt I could relate to a lot of the stories. But the one Mike Singletary had was great because he talked about his defining moment. He grew up in a Pentecostal household, and his father was a pastor. So, therefore, they were not allowed to play in any sports or extracurricular activities. At that time, two of his brothers accidentally died. One drowned in a creek, and another parked their car in the garage, and he fell asleep in the garage and died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
His father abandoned the family. He was the youngest out of nine. And at the age of 12-years-old, his mother looked at him and said, ‘Young mike, I need you to be the man of the family. It’s time for you to step up.’ I said, ‘Mike, what did you do?’ He said he ran to his room and he cried. He locked the door and cried, and then started to write. I said, ‘Coach, what did you write?’ He said, ‘Takeo, little did I know, I was just writing out the things I wanted to do. I was the man of the house.’ I said, ‘What was the first thing you wrote down?’ He said, ‘I wanted to play football.’
He wrote he wanted to play Division I football, but first he wanted to play high school football. Then he wanted to earn a scholarship to a Division I. Then he wanted to win The Buck. Then he wanted to become an All American. All of this he wrote down at the age of 12-years-old, without ever playing a snap. Then he wrote down, I want to be drafted in the first round of the NFL. He went on to write, I want to be a Super Bowl champion. I want to be in the Pro Bowl and the Hall of Fame.
Out of everything he wrote on that list at the age of 12—after his mother was crying saying, ‘Mike, I need you to be the man of the family.’—he accomplished everything, except one or two things on that list. And you talk about a vision board. That was a vision board before it was a vision. And the reason I love this story so much is because that’s the way he lived his life. I had the opportunity to not only spend a day with him, but I was coached by him for three years. And that’s him to a tee. He truly believes that if you believe it, you can achieve it. And that’s his motto. And if he makes his mind up on something, he’s going to get it. And there’s no white noise, there’s no distractions, it’s only him and the end point of the goal he wants.”
CL: “That’s absolutely incredible. I believe you are working on another book right now?”
TS: “I am. I am in the stage of producing Vol 2, which will be dedicated to running backs.”
CL: “Awesome. I like that you dedicated the first one to linebackers, so can we look forward to a series? If the next one is going to be on running backs, can we then look forward cornerbacks, and then maybe defensive ends?”
TS: “There you go. That’s it. It’s going to be a whole collection, a complete docuseries. And don’t be surprised if you see a documentary come out about Behind the Mask.”
CL: “Ah, nice. Sounds like a little bit of a teaser??
TS: “A little bit of a teaser.”
CL: “I know we can all look forward to that. For the better part of your life, I think for about 29 years, you played football. Is that correct, 29 years??
TS: “Yeah. When I retired at 36 I realized, 29 years out of my 36 years of living I played organized football.”
CL: “That’s stunning. And you successfully transitioned after that. How was that process for you?”
TS: “It was hard, I’ll be honest with you. That’s the first time someone’s asked me that question. Oh man, I can tell you numerous times calling the guys and trying to get their schedule. And what may have been the hardest, the guys were like, ‘Okay, have you done one before?’ No, I haven’t, but trust me, everything about me is first class. So, I had to sell them just on my vision. And the reason why I respect these guys so much is because they trust me. They trusted me, and they understood that I spoke the same language as they did, and that I wouldn’t do anything to kill their brand.
That was the hard part; trying to do the scheduling, trying to convince guys of what’s in my head. Because it’s easier to commit your peers and colleagues just because they spend so much time with you. When you talking to guys like a Bobby Bell, Chuck Bednarik, Willie Lanier, talking to a Kevin Greene, these guys, they may know of me, but they’re like, ‘What’s up? You trying to capitalize off of me?’ And they trusted me enough to know my heart.
I told them, ‘I want you to be the author of your own autobiography, just allow me to share your story.’
CL: “That’s powerful stuff. You were able to not only spend quality time with these guys, but they trusted you with their personal stories. I read most of them, it’s a very fascinating book. What I like about it is your photography, and the shots you capture with these athletes, in many ways, captures the essence of the dialogue you present. Tell me about your process of finding the right moment. How do you know when you found the right moment to take the shot? From what I’ve seen, you seem to have a natural eye for it. What is your process?”
TS: “The hard part about that was, I knew in order to get what I want, I knew I had to have those guys in a position where they were comfortable to talk with me. As much as I wanted them to come to a studio and let me do all the pictures that I want, I knew it would not be authentic. So, what I did, I just went to them. I said, ‘I do not care where you are, just let me know how much time I have, and what day, and I’ll make it happen from there.’
So, I found things just from talking to them, building a relationship with them, as far as what they did and what they like to do. And I just did research. Even if it took me to fly to their city, so I could find the spot to where my client, or my colleague, whatever you want to call them, would be comfortable. I wanted the images to drive stories, as well as the stories to drive the images.”
CL: “To me, football, sports, is art. But you are now creating art with your photographs and with your words. In your opinion, what is the importance of art? Especially now, with the current societal and political climate.”
TS: “There’s only a few things that bring people together regardless of race, religion, creed, or gender. The power of sport itself brings people together, music is another thing that brings people together, regardless of where you’re from and what you believe in. And that third thing is art. I’ve partaken in art shows and been to different places and countries, and it’s amazing how art brings people together from different backgrounds. It connects them to come together, and to really stop and admire, and just really enjoy the moment for what it is.”
CL: “So true. And the more we can come together and appreciate things like that, the more we can start creating a connection with one another that we might not otherwise have in common.”
TS: “Absolutely! It’s all about respecting each other’s humanity. That’s it, because, it’s easy to turn away or be solemn when you don’t know anything about somebody or you choose not to. But when you take time to learn, when you take time to listen, when you take time to observe, deep down inside you have some type of empathy about you. And if you have that, and if you slow down to really embrace that, then it’s easy.
It’s not about, ‘Well, this side did this and that side did that.’ It’s all about humanity. And it’s all about us being human beings and respecting each other’s personal space, and their beliefs.
Takeo Spikes Presents: Behind the Mask is on bookshelves now.